John D. Ivanko
July 20, 2010

Transition Milwaukee

Courtesy Christie Mole

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During Transition Milwaukee’s Power Down Week in June 2010, members of the Wisconsin transition initiative built a cob oven and baked pizza and muffins. (The group reports that their baked goods were delicious.)

The pace of change is accelerating, and much of it is neither encouraging nor hopeful—as is seen most recently in the devastation caused by BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

But at the recent Midwest Renewable Energy Association’s Renewable Energy and Sustainable Living Fair in Custer, Wis., the world’s largest and longest-running energy education event, a workshop focused on the transition initiative. The transition initiative, a rapidly spreading global movement to move communities from oil dependency to local resilience, recognizes new ways to prosper while reducing carbon emissions that are, in part, causing climate change.

The workshop tent was packed with people who are forming a transition initiative in their communities or who are eager to start one. Speaker Bill Wilson of Midwest Permaculture painted both a positive and alluring vision of tomorrow for the audience, sharing how citizens are exploring new, less energy-intensive ways of living that are positive and nourishing. Transition initiatives build societal resilience by re-localizing how we obtain food, energy, housing and livelihood, he says.

Christie Mole, a long-time Milwaukee resident, is a founding steering committee members of Transition Milwaukee, which launched in January 2009. After hearing Wilson facilitate a “Training for Transition” talk for transition initiatives in another community earlier this year, she decided to attend the transition initiative workshop. 

“I’m deeply interested in these issues and recognized that the transition initiative could be an effective and inclusive way of mobilizing people from all backgrounds and interests, from urban beekeepers to urban farmers to green builders,” Mole says.

As part of the 12-step Transition Town process, communities implement practical projects known as “visible manifestations.” During the 2009 Memorial Day weekend, Transition Milwaukee partnered with the Victory Garden Initiative to kick off Victory Garden Blitz. They built as many gardens in schools, front yards, churches and public spaces as they could. Hundreds of people were touched by Transition Milwaukee through this event, and many joined the cause on the organization’s social-networking site, where they have an opportunity to interact with one another directly.

“I’m blown away by the caliber of the people involved with the movement,” says Mole, her infectious spirit and ebullience one of the likely reasons the Milwaukee transition initiative has grown so quickly.

Most recently, in June 2010, Transition Milwaukee sponsored a Power Down Week, filled with workshops that included everything from canning and home preserving to soap making—all key skills needed in the “great re-skilling” (another of the 12 Transition Town steps). 

“We measure our success by those people who powered down in at least one way that week,” Mole says.

As the longest-running transition initiative in Wisconsin, Transition Milwaukee’s numbers have swelled to more than 300, creating an opportunity to help localize efforts neighborhood by neighborhood. 

“Milwaukee is such a large community,” Mole says. “We wanted to build a name for ourselves then perhaps set ourselves up as a hub. Since we’ve attracted more members, we can move the initiative out into the neighborhoods, where more time and energy can be used in even more local ways.”

For urban farmers, the transition initiative will sound remarkably familiar, given that it’s an outgrowth of permaculture design principles and ethics. According to permaculture founder Bill Mollison, wastes become resources within the permaculture design system, productivity and yields increase, work is minimized, and the environment is restored. As with permaculture, the goal of the transition initiative is to transform the present consumption (and growth) model into a creation model based on sustainability.

The bottom-up approach to the transition initiative is refreshingly honest in its call to action.  The grassroots organizers and trainers are quick to admit that it’s a social experiment on a massive scale. The appeal of transition initiatives is understandable: If we make the changes ourselves, it’s unlikely to have the far-reaching community-wide effects needed, but by acting as a community, change is attainable.

“It is worth remembering that it takes a lot of cheap energy to maintain the levels of social inequity we see today, the levels of obesity, the record levels of indebtedness, the high levels of car use and alienating urban landscapes,” writes Rob Hopkins, author of The Transition Handbook (Chelsea Green, 2008) and co-founder of the Transition Network organization. “Only a culture awash with cheap oil could become de-skilled on the monumental scale we have.”

If nothing else, Transition Milwaukee has become one of the growing numbers of places where skills, kindness and generosity have become the tools for community conviviality. 

“We all have had those peak oil moments—that discovery of what’s happening to our planet,” Mole says. “Transition initiatives, for me, led to the discovery of all those people in my community who have come together to solve some of the problems by applying our collective genius. That’s what makes me feel complete.”


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